Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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Reading for pleasure part 1: What’s new in the Maverick Gold Band.

It will soon be the start of the summer term and for many Key Stage One teachers this means one thing: time for the Statutory Assessments or SATs. Reading is a key part of this process and by the time a child is completing this phase of their education there are a number of skills they are expected to master. Among the list provided in the National Curriculum we find that children should:

  • read accurately by blending the sounds in words that contain the graphemes  taught so far, especially recognising alternative sounds for graphemes
  • read accurately words of two or more syllables
  • read further common exception words
  • read aloud books closely matched to their improving phonic knowledge, sounding out unfamiliar words accurately, automatically and without undue hesitation

I would also add an additional aspect to reading at this age – it has to be FUN! Being able to read for the sheer joy and pleasure of the story is vitally important. So the books children have access to at this vital stage need to not only support their independence in the mechanics of reading, but also enthuse and engage them.

Looking at the new additions to the Maverick Early Readers at the Gold Band level, I think Year Two teachers will find plenty to support children develop these essential building blocks towards independent reading. Each one is a five chapter book, which will build reading stamina. On top of that they are great stories that are fun to read.

ER-The-Chicken-Knitters-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024“The Chicken Knitters” by Cath Jones and Sean Longcroft is a rollicking adventure with a host of capable and fast thinking female characters, including the chickens!  As I have recently rediscovered the joy of crochet, I was immediately drawn to this title. Lilly, our knitting heroine is determined to save the featherless chickens from the clutches of Farmer Claw. Despite several setbacks, she finally outwits the farmer with the help of the local school knitting champions and Edna McLuskey, the school caretaker.

Many of the year 2 spelling and grammar expectations feature, providing much needed examples in context. The text also includes plenty of onomatopoeia, which enriches the language experienced by the reader. What I particularly liked is the way environmental and animal welfare issues are carefully integrated into the story. This book would provide a good launch point for discussion around these points. The value of crafts and making things is another aspect which is promoted, and I was pleased to see that the champion knitters included a boy! More perceptive readers may wonder why Lilly herself wasn’t at school, but “The Chicken Knitters” is an engaging chapter book, with a very satisfying and happy conclusion.

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Katie Dale has two new books in the Gold Band. “The Coach, the Shoes and the Football”, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea, is a witty inversion of the traditional Cinderella story. Raj (who is presumably an orphan because his mum is never mentioned) lives with Terry, his uncaring stepfather, and his two dreadful step brothers. All three make Raj’s life miserable and his only hope on the horizon is the summer football camp. Will Raj get to the try outs and impress Coach Prince? Not if Luke and Damon can help it. But despite their efforts and a series of setbacks, Raj is saved by his “hairy Godfather”, Dan, who even provides some sparkly new football boots too.

I liked the way the story references the traditional tale, but makes it a modern version – perfect for prompting similar re-telling of traditional tales from a different angle. It also uses interesting similes and wordplay to stretch the reader. When challenged, Terry turns “as purple as a beetroot,” and there’s also a full on cheesy Cinderella/football joke at the end which should make everyone groan!

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Katie Dale’s second book is “The Magic Music box”, illustrated by Giovana Medeiros.

Bella is desperate to go to ballet school, but there just isn’t any spare cash to pay for it. Bella, however is determined and saves hard to acquire the tutu and shoes she needs. She is also given a magical music box with a dancing ballerina by the mysterious lady in the charity shop. The dancing ballerina inside coaches Bella until she is ready for the talent competition. But things don’t go as the reader may predict – and this is my favourite part of the story. In a time when talent shows are seen as THE way to achieve success, it’s heartening to have a story where hard work and practice are the virtues that get rewarded. In turn, Bella passes on the magical musical box to a dance obsessed boy – another nice twist in this engaging tale.

The story uses alliteration to very good effect, for example, Bella does the cha-cha-cha to the charity shop. There is also a range of descriptive vocabulary which will open up inference questions; when Bella trudges to the charity shop or bites her lip, how is she feeling? The illustrations also open up questions to be explored…just who is the woman from the charity shop?!  This is a sweet tale which emphasises how hard work is what will ultimately help you achieve your dreams.

ER-The-Spooky-Sleepover-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024Finally we have “The Spooky Sleepover” by Elizabeth Dale, illustrated by Steve Wood. I was particularly taken with the monochrome illustrations in this book, which seem to bridge between all colour picture books and an illustrated story.

Summer can’t wait to show off her new house to her friends, and nothing, including spooky noises and a mysterious cat, is going to stop the four girls from having fun! Ella is not so sure about the spooky goings on, but her friends are so reassuring that even she takes part in the midnight ghost hunt. The next day the four friends make a surprise discovery, with an even more surprising ending.

This story manages the balance between being scary but not TOO scary very well indeed! The lovely black and white illustrations work well, as the girls explore the night-time house, where every sound is different to the familiar day time world. I also like the way the girls are not reacting in a stereotypical way to the spooky noises and goings on. Summer has a practical explanation for each occurrence, and they all positively relish the idea of holidays spent looking for ghosts! The story builds gently to the final reveal, but still leaves enough room for discussion about what really happened.

All four of these new Gold Band books will give independent readers a challenge and support their writing skills too. Children who are writing at the greater depth standard are expected to “write effectively and coherently for different purposes, drawing on their reading to inform the vocabulary and grammar of their writing“. If these are the books they are reading, then they should be off to a great start.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

 

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Writing: It’s a marathon not a sprint

youg child writing

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who writes, but it’s only in the last five years that I have written seriously.

After an exciting early phase of sending out frankly awful drafts of my stories, without a clue to why they were not the marvellous things I thought they were, I settled into a routine. Write, revise, critique, revise, submit. Repeat.

Time stretched and days passed as I wrote and wrote, furiously trying to balance the daily requirements of work and life…periods of drought when I thought I’d never have a new idea in my life, punctuated by needle sharp clarity and inspiration. Yet the rejections kept coming.

Then, as a result of winning a SCBWI Slushpile challenge I was accepted onto the very first Golden Egg Academy picture book programme. In the summer of 2018, I began submitting my stories again. As a GEA graduate and armed with three edited stories, I was feeling positive. Submit, wait…

Rejection. Rejection, rejection.

I felt crushed. I had poured my heart and soul into those stories for over a year. I had put all submission and competition entry on hold to give myself a chance…and for what purpose? To feel like THAT?

I’ve never wanted to run, let alone run a marathon but I think the resilience of the long distance runner must, in some way, be akin to that of the unpublished writer. Over the past five years, I have learnt to dig deep and stay in the race. I have jumped hurdles and learnt to get back up again. I have joined forces with other runners and writers to boost morale and share strategy. I have celebrated the successes and hard fought wins of others, whilst trying not to say out loud, “but when will it be MY turn?”

At this point, if I’m honest, I was the closest I have been to simply stopping. After all, no-one would get hurt, nothing would change, would it? Yet deep down, the toughness I had learned along the way wouldn’t let me. Just keep going, just keep writing, just keep submitting.

Write, submit…

Well, what can I say? I’m still pinching myself when I say to people that I’m now a represented writer. I have signed with a Literary Agent who loves my stories. We are editing and shaping to start submitting to publishers in the Spring. My first marathon has been run. A new one is about to begin.

This time I’m ready.

 

 

 


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Making Reading Real Again.

One of the longest standing debates in the teaching of reading must be the reading scheme vs. “real books” one. Over nearly 35 years of being involved in the teaching of reading, this one has rumbled and rumbled. Being a realist, I was always aware that the barrier to reading a published picture book independently lay in the complexity of the written words and this remains the main stumbling block.

Maverick have grasped this nettle and are building a deliciously appealing set of banded reading books which combine both the aesthetics of a picture book, yet have the graded vocabulary required to match a child’s developing decoding skills. The colour bands used to grade the books are derived from the “Book Band” system, developed by the Institute of Education, and used widely in schools to match books across the many existing schemes. I’ve been a long-standing devotee of the book bands, as they give teachers a short hand system for judging the relative difficulty of a book. In my day job I work with primary schools and this includes the moderation of reading assessments in Reception and Year. At times like this, being able to judge a book by its cover comes in very handy!

Maverick titles August 2018

New Maverick titles August 2018

I was able to review some of the earlier books in the scheme, which were in the Purple Band – definitely for the more confident readers likely to be in Key Stage 1. These were retellings of existing picture books, which was what I loved about them! I was therefore keen to see if there was any difference in the earlier bands, given the need to pitch the language and vocabulary to a more specific range of reading skills and knowledge.

Both books really worked well for me. Jim and the Big Fish, by SCBWI friend Clare Helen Welsh and Illustrated by Patricia Reagan is a Yellow Band book – this would roughly be aimed at a Reception/Year 1 child. It is a charming story with a seaside setting – now knowing Clare lives in Devon, this didn’t surprise me! Jim tries unsuccessfully to catch a big fish but the items he does fish out of the harbour, courtesy of the pesky seagulls, help him achieve his aim in a roundabout way! There are simple sentences and speech bubbles which feature easily decodable words, perfect for the developing reader. The usual quiz is at the end of the book to support recall skills. The illustrations also provide some opportunities for practising inference and deduction skills, as you have to look quite hard to see that the man in the boat is also fishing – it took me two reads through!

Little Scarlet’s Big Fibs by Katie Dale, Illustrated by Kevin Payne is a Blue Band book,  – perfect for Year 1 readers. This is based on the traditional Red Riding Hood story but with a great twist that will get children laughing! There is an increase in the number of sentences on the page, which will build reading stamina, but the reader is still supported by decodable words to help fluency. Small illustrated clues also give the reader information about just what Little Scarlet is up to and why Granny isn’t getting her treats. Granny is quite savvy and I’m also sure Scarlet won’t be eating her snacks again! One thing I did wonder about was the universality of crossing your fingers behind your back to excuse a fib…again this is a very small illustrative detail but key to any discussion around Scarlet’s behaviour – is telling lies to your Granny a good or bad thing? This would definitely be worth exploring from a moral standpoint.

Once again the high production values and quality of the writing shine through in both books and I think these are a great addition to the Maverick Early Reader scheme.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

 


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A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

As a child I read everything and anything I could get my hands on and I can still vividly recall the moment I realised I was actually reading in my head! It was magical; words and pictures danced together, creating a perfect moment of pure story pleasure.

What I also remember is that I was very conscious of the existence of two types of books; the ones I chose for myself and the ones I had to read. The school reading books. The utterly boring and tedious activities of characters I had no interest or desire to know any more about, thank you! My Naughty Little Sister, Paddington Bear or Olga Da Polga would trump anything that Janet and John or Peter and Jane could offer me, any day.

“Literacy begins with immersion in an environment in which the skill is used in a purposeful, active, and meaningful way.”

Don Holdaway, “The Foundations of Literacy” (1979)

How could any reading scheme be purposeful, active and meaningful, when there were so many exciting books to explore and read? As a result, even as an experienced primary teacher, I have always been a tad suspicious of any reading scheme, no matter how “real book” they try to be.

I was curious, therefore, to have a closer look at the new “Early Readers” from Maverick Children’s Books. The idea behind this series is simple: to create reading books that support the transition from being a listener to being a reader. The resulting books have also been “banded” according to the Institute of Education’s book bands for guided reading, which provides clear guidance on the level of difficulty and reading skills needed. This is a big plus for me, as I frequently use the book bands in my advisory work with schools.

Working with their roster of established authors (including several SCBWI friends across the whole series), the purple band books are based on existing stories or characters, with which children may already be familiar. The established pairings of author and illustrator are also replicated, which again provides a sense of familiarity and high quality. In look and feel they have the same structure as a typical picture book with each one running to thirteen double page spreads. Illustrations and text work well together, although there is a greater separation of text and image on the page than is typically found in a picture book. This enhances the sense that they are a step up from a picture book  – they are instead books with great pictures! Yet there is still much to explore in the illustrations and I particularly liked Queen Fluff’s encounter with a rat in his underpants in “A Right Royal Mess”. 

As reading books these would be suitable for reading alone or in a guided group. Maverick have created useful activity packs for some of the books which can support the teaching of reading in a group activity or at home. For example a focus on specific consonant clusters is suggested if reading “The Jelly That Wouldn’t Wobble”, and key language features that can be used in writing, such as onomatopoeia are also featured. Yet they are not too schooly and I think they would be equally welcome as a shared bedtime story.

Each story comes with a quiz at the end, which can be used to support recall of key information. If I were to suggest one thing to strengthen this section of the book, it would be a greater focus on inference. Some questions do provide a “think about” element such as “Why does nobody want to help the Grizzly? in “The Great Grizzly Race., but there is only one answer. More open-ended questions could provide greater challenge and opportunities to develop skills of being able to “answer questions and make some inferences on the basis of what is being said and done” (End of KS1 expected standard).

For me, each book works well as a complete story, bringing the sense of satisfaction that comes from active engagement in a well written picture book. For a transitional reader the overall reading experience would be supportive, yet one of moving on to something more challenging. In Don Holdaway’s words, they are definitely purposeful and meaningful.

So am I converted? I have to say I am.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

Disclaimer: I was invited to review the Maverick Early Reader books by the publisher who provided copies of three purple band books.
I have received no compensation for doing this piece and all opinions are my own.

 


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In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character? Continue reading